Editor’s Note: This story includes discussions about sexual assault.
Outside of a few counties in rural Nevada, consensual sex acts in person for pay is illegal in the United States. But no federal law prohibits them. Under the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, it is up to each state to regulate the sex trade as it sees fit.
Under Oregon law, it is a crime to buy or sell sex acts in person. Now a coalition of advocates led by sex workers is trying to change that.
the Oregon Sex Worker Human Rights Commission held a public hearing Thursday to explain why they believe decriminalization will protect sex workers from violence, reduce health risks and help protect BIPOC and transgender communities.
It featured testimonies from a panel of a dozen experts, as well as testimonials from dozens of sex workers, lawyers and allies past and present. Many of them have chosen to keep their identities anonymous because, although they have chosen to do this work consensually, buying or selling sex is a Class A misdemeanor in Oregon, punishable by ” one year in prison and a fine of up to $ 6,250 (penalties are higher if a person compels or encourages sex work, or if the person is a minor).
Dr Angela Jones, associate professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, studies the sex trade with a focus on marginalized communities. Jones has written extensively on the subject.
“Decades of research unequivocally show that criminalization only makes sex workers less safe, contributing to violence, poor health outcomes, banking and real estate discrimination, stigma. And driving third-party exploiters underground just makes it harder and more expensive to catch them, ”Jones said at last week’s hearing.
Researchers, activists and civil rights groups have argued for years that decriminalizing in-person commercial sex acts would be a victory for the human rights of sex workers. Last year the The ACLU issued a brief by examining more than 70 empirical studies on the subject, concluding that “full decriminalization would lead to better conditions for those who engage in sex work, especially the most marginalized, and help reduce the crisis of police violence and violence. mass incarceration in the United States. “
There is also a historic precedent: New Zealand decriminalized payment for in-person sex acts in 2003. A 2007 report funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Department of Justice concluded that there had been “little, if any, negative health and safety consequences for sex workers after decriminalization”.
The main focus of this week’s event in Oregon was to give people who voluntarily engage in paid sex the platform to speak with their own voices.
A woman who gave Brandi’s name explained that sex work as a single mother was a conscious choice to protect her family.
“Consensual sex work has been a game changer and the only opportunity to put me in a position to pay my rent,” she said. “My professional life does not overlap with my family life. I can buy food, school supplies for my children, buy them gifts on Christmas morning.
Many experts on the panel argued that the push for decriminalization rests on a distinction between consensual sex work and sex trafficking. Elle Stanger, a certified sex educator and sex worker from Oregon, highlighted the distinction.
“A sex worker is someone who engages in sexually relevant work,” Stanger said, “usually in exchange for money. A victim or survivor of sex trafficking is someone who is coerced by another person. or entity to perform sexually relevant work.
The police do not make this distinction. Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she posed the question to Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell but received no answers.
“I said, ‘Can you really explain to me what adult behavior is and what is it that people are made to prostitute against their will? “Can you break this down for me?” Said Hardesty. “Because I can’t find it on my own and I’m smart enough: I’m really good at finding data and decompressing data, and I can’t find it. “
Organizers said the push for decriminalization is not meant to lessen the horrors of sex trafficking.
“I pretty much felt like I couldn’t go home, I had no other choice,” said Kara Alexander, who was forced into prostitution and trafficked as a teenager. . “I have been raped several times, I have been assaulted. The police didn’t do anything, because I was a prostitute.
Alexander eventually escaped when she was 21, but her criminal record followed her as she tried to get her life back on track.
“I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I am a certified sex trafficking victim in New York State and would bring my papers to Wawa [a convenience store chain], at Family Dollar, and they still didn’t want to hire me, ”she said. “I am not a criminal. I only have misdemeanor charges of being trafficked. But yet, no one would hear it.
Samantha Evans is also a survivor of sex trafficking. Years later, after a marriage that ended in domestic violence, she began to prostitute herself on her own terms.
She said the difference is life changing.
“I got my confidence, my identity and my life back, through sex work,” Evans said. “Going from being a target and trafficked at the age of 14 to being now raised and valued by the people I work with and my clients has been uplifting and made my life worth living. “
Advocates said this was the crux of the matter: survivors of sex trafficking and consensual sex workers are penalized by a legal framework that does not give them the autonomy they need to make their decisions.
During the hearing, several people quoted the words of lawyer Priscilla Alexander: “The right to prostitute is as important as the right not to be.
Vanessa Warri, community researcher and spokesperson for black transgender people, said decriminalization would give sex workers from all walks of life the ability to safely report their experiences to police when needed.
“This means that the most marginalized members of our society, who are criminalized simply for their existence, are not discriminated against just for trying to survive,” Warri said.
The meeting of the Oregon Sex Worker Human Rights Commission was a first step in many ways. Oregon Democratic State Representative Rob Nosse introduced a bill to decriminalize in-person commercial sex acts in the state legislature this year, but he failed to find broad support. Members of the commission said they were focusing on educating the public to help future efforts. Ultimately, they hope to either support a bill that would decriminalize commercial sex offenses or a voting measure through which voters in Oregon could pass the law.
In the meantime, the group is focused on reducing the stigma that continues to follow anyone who engages in sex work, or has done so in the past, people like Nicole Gililland.
She is engaged in a ongoing pursuit for Title IX with Southwestern Oregon Community College, where she says she was discriminated against for her former prostitution. Since then, she has made a full journey to law school.
But Gililland still wants people to understand that sex work can create a vital human connection for those who need it.
“You don’t know how many people just need to be touched, need to be connected with another person,” said Gililland, “In the same way that therapists help people, sex workers help them. They keep a lot of people from breaking, they really are.